There are some stories that settle down in your soul and leave their mark on your heart. Such are the two books I recently finished. Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid and Angel of Harlem by Kuwana Haulsey were both as smoothly satisfying as a perfectly frothed vanilla latte, warm and comfortable, nurturing and enveloping, complete and satisfying.
I love first person stories, perhaps because I recognize the need within myself to write my own words and to give my characters voice. I've also been drawn to the hidden treasures found in black female literature, far from the latest best selling books list but near to the soul of a reader. Each of the treasure were found in the used book section of Left Bank Books in the Central West End. Both will have permanent places on my bookshelf, each will be given to my daughter at the appropriate time for them to read and ponder.
Annie John drew me because it was a mother-daughter love story with a young girl as the central character. She was at first in awe and in joy with just being in her mother's presence. Her mother also seemed to radiate light and life on her only child, a clear present and energy beyond caring for her elderly husband, thirty-five years her senior. Her daughter received affirmation, affection, and appreciation. Annie John's privileged life was easy and adventurous, even as she grew older and knew how to put on the codes adults loved to see in well behaved children. The girl managed to throw in some adventure and knowing and learning of herself along with the inevitable tug-of-war that happens when girl becomes woman.
The mother-daughter strain seeped through like one of the Caribbean rains soaking the ground. It was strange and uncomfortable to wade through this murky relationship between the two of them, how they seemed to play on each other, at once both love and hate each other. I felt myself crying inside and longing inside because my mother died when I was only four, I wondered if I would ever hate her and not want to be her?
In the end, the mother struggling to redefine herself not as Annie JOhn's mother and the daughter venturing out in the world determined to not be her mother, realized how much they would always be inter-dependent. "It doesn't matter what you do or where you go, I'll always be your mother and this will always be your home." Even as Annie John seemed to abhor those words, they gave her and me a comforting sense of belonging, of having a space and time where we would always be accepted for who we were.
Angel of Harlem was also a story that resonated with me as the story of the amazing Dr. May Edward Chinn unfolded. She was also an only child and having come of age in Harlem during the 1920s. Easily a remarkable time in Harlem with the recounting of the riot in East St. Louis or the emerging careers of Zora Neale (a college student at the time of the book) or Paul Robeson or the handsome and young Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, Claude McKay, names on my bookshelf now. I loved the conversation between these literary and artistic greats.
May was right along with them, a young woman during the hey day of Dr. W.E.B. DuBois, a witness of the inner turmoil over skin color, emerging black middle class, and the never-ending, crushing poverty of the inner city. Dr. May was a light in the darkness for many. She had encounters with amazing men who loved her deeply and wanted to make her their wife. However, there was this inner striving in her, perhaps because her father refused to speak to her after her first sexual experience resulted in a beautiful baby boy. He wouldn't even look at her and I felt the crush in her spirit by the first man she ever loved turning his back on her. She was cushioned by the comforting robe of her mother's warm words, steady work hands, and filling of her every need.
Lulu Chinn was as much a heroine of the story as Dr. May. Her mother saw opportunity in her daughter and gave her the wind to fly even higher than the creamy colored daredevil pilot Fauntleroy Julian. Dr. May Edward Chinn was able to affect so many lives and so many people because she went against the grain of conformity. She seemed to capture the spirit of the times and the unencumbrance of singlehood to do revolutionary cancer research, rescue a young boy's leg from the El train, squirrel away young girls from a life of urban slavery, and still manage to reconcile with her father before he died, cherish her mother's final days, and release a former beau from his promise to find contentment.
I felt this woman and feel her presence even now as I muse on her words. The best of the book is summed up in her realization that a lifetime of searching often brings us to the realization that what we wanted was right in front of us. "I understood that to perform a miracle meant nothing. What mattered was having the courage to be the miracle. How many years had it taken me to have the courage to really live, to accept and embrace that one truth?"
In both these books and in both these women, I walk away with a sense that now is the time to live this life, it is a gift, and it is a promise.
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